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Why Texas’ ‘death penalty capital of the world’ stopped executing people

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Since the Supreme Court legalized capital punishment in 1976, Harris County, Texas, has executed 126 people. That's more executions than every individual state in the union, barring Texas itself.
Harris County's executions account for 23 percent of the 545 people Texas has executed. On the national level, the state alone is responsible for more than a third of the 1,465 people put to death in the United States since 1976.
In 2017, however, the county known as the "death penalty capital of the world" and the "buckle of the American death belt" executed and sentenced to death a remarkable number of people: zero.
This is the first time since 1985 that Harris County did not execute any of its death row inmates, and the third year in a row it did not sentence anyone to capital punishment either.
The remarkable statistic reflects a shift the nation is seeing as a whole.
“The practices that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is following are also signifi…

Japan executes 2 inmates

Gallows at Tokyo Detention Center
Gallows at Tokyo Detention Center
TOKYO — Japan on Friday carried out the first execution of an inmate sentenced to death in a lay judge trial following the country’s introduction of the judicial system in 2009, Justice Minister Mitsuhide Iwaki said.

Along with Sumitoshi Tsuda, 63, another death row inmate, Kazuyuki Wakabayashi, 39, was hanged in the first executions in Japan since June.

Tsuda was convicted of killing his landlord Akihito Shibata, 73, Shibata’s brother Yoshiaki, 71, as well as Yoshiaki’s wife Toshiko, 68, in May 2009 at an apartment building in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Wakabayashi was sentenced to death for killing Noriko Ueno, a 52-year-old office worker, and her 24-year-old daughter Yuki after breaking into their home in the town of Hirono, Iwate Prefecture, in July 2006. He later abandoned their bodies in nearby mountains and stole 20,000 yen in cash from the victims.

Anti-death penalty organization Amnesty International Japan protested over Friday’s executions and urged the Japanese government to abolish the death penalty.

The group also said sentencing a person to death is a grave decision for citizen judges and called for more information disclosure to the public regarding the capital punishment system.

Iwaki, who ordered executions for the first time since assuming the post in October, said at a press conference that he believes professional and lay judges handed down the death sentence to Tsuda “after careful deliberations.”

The minister also stressed that he signed the papers to order the executions, respecting the decision of the citizen judges. “I carried out my duties (as the justice minister) given the significant decision of the lay judges,” Iwaki said.

Iwaki condemned Tsuda and Wakabayashi, saying they “took irreplaceable lives for selfish purposes” and that the agony inflicted on the families of the victims will never be healed.

Iwaki declined to comment when asked why the two men were chosen for Friday’s hangings and about future executions.

The minister also said counseling for lay judges needs to be studied, after a citizen judge in Tsuda’s trial said ordinary people should not be involved in determining cases in which prosecutors could demand the death penalty.

The lay judge system was introduced to reflect citizens’ views in criminal court proceedings.

With the latest executions, the number of death row inmates in Japan stands at 126. According to the Supreme Court, 26 have been sentenced to death in lay judge trials and rulings for seven of them have been finalized.

During the lay judge trial, Tsuda apologized to the relatives of the victims, saying he would “expiate his crime with his own life.” While his defense counsel argued that Tsuda’s crime was not premeditated, the Yokohama District Court sentenced him to death in June 2011.

His defense counsel appealed the ruling to the Tokyo High Court, but the death sentence was finalized in July 2011 after Tsuda withdrew his appeal.

Wakabayashi was sentenced to death in April 2007. After the Sendai High Court upheld the lower court ruling, his sentence was finalized in January 2012 as the Supreme Court turned down his appeal.

With the latest hangings, the total number of executions under the second Shinzo Abe administration launched in December 2012 has risen to 14.

Source: Japan Today, December 18, 2015


Japan: Two executed in Tokyo and Sendai

On Friday December 18th, Japan’s Justice Minister Mitsuhide Iwaki executed Mr. Sumitoshi Tsuda and Kazuyuki Wakabayashi at Tokyo and Sendai Detention Center respectively, for the first time during his term of office since October 2015.

On the occasion of the last execution ordered by then Justice Minister Kamikawa, we pronounced in our statement as follows; “with the increasing number of death sentences handed down by lay judges, it seems utterly impossible to avoid execution of death sentences which were imposed by lay judges and finalized without any review by the higher courts. The Japanese government should stop forcing its citizens to take the responsibility of retaining capital punishment, citing the result of opinion polls and the system of lay judge trial. Instead, the government should introduce the mandatory appeal system and commence review of the entire death penalty system”. Today we repeat the same words here.

Gallows at Tokyo Detention Center
Gallows at Tokyo Detention Center, as seen from viewing gallery
Mr. Tsuda, sentenced to death in lay judge trial held in June 2011, had withdrawn his appeal to the High Court and made his sentence finalized the following month. 

Prior to indictment, public prosecutor’s office commissioned two separate psychiatric tests on his criminal responsibility. Trial court also ordered an additional test, which found him responsible. 

However, validity of the withdrawal is doubted in light of the 1995 Supreme Court decision which established standards for validity of withdrawal made by inmates sentenced to death. 

Today’s execution reminds us urgent necessity for introduction of mandatory appeal system for death sentences. 

Many death sentences have been finalized without review by appellate courts for lack of the system of mandatory appeal. The consequences of such a fault in the judicial system not only are the innocents held on death row but also those who do not deserve to death are sentenced to death. 

As there are various factors which are crucial for determination of ultimate punishment, there is always great risk of erroneous decision in sentencing. 

A recent example of this would be the decisions made by the Tokyo High Court to overturn lay judges’ decisions to impose the death penalty in three cases, which were subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court. Thus, various UN human rights bodies such as UN Human Rights Committee (2008) and The Committee Against Torture (2007, 2013) have issued recommendations time and time again, that there should be steps taken to ensure that such appeals shall become mandatory.

Mr. Wakabayashi, who later retracted admission of his direct responsibility for double murders in the appellate court, had fully admitted the commission of the crimes and his conviction had come only nine months after the incidents. This means prosecutor’s case was not seriously tested by the defense based on his denial. Japan adopts a unitary trial, in which the issue of punishment is submitted to the court along with the issue of guilt. 

Defendants are forced to beg for mercy, while they contend that they are not guilty in the course of same procedure. Our criminal justice system is designed too poorly to impose ultimate punishment in many ways, including Penal Code provisions which give sentencers broad discretion.

The Japanese government should face up to numerous problems on the system of the death penalty and immediately commence review of the entire system including abolition of the punishment.

Center for Prisoners’ Rights condemns today’s executions and will continue its struggle to achieve moratorium on executions and ultimate abolition of the death penalty.

Source: Center for Prisoners’ Rights, Yuichi KAIDO, President; Maiko TAGUSARI, Secretary-General, December 18, 2015

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